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Eastern Kentucky Communities Barraged By Second Round of Flooding

Theresa Howard

Heavy rains have again caused major flooding in parts of eastern Kentucky, a region that has suffered three floods in just a little over a year. The high waters this weekend followed a round of severe flooding at the first of March. For some communities, including the city of Middlesboro in Bell County and the town of Neon in Letcher County, the high water mark exceeded that of the flooding of 2020.  

What once was a rare event is becoming commonplace, and many communities have found themselves repeatedly in the path of destruction. Some, like Mayor Rick Nelson of Middlesboro, are beginning to wonder what could be done to mitigate the problems before they happen.

In Middlesboro, this weekend’s torrential rainfall filled the banks of the Yellow Creek to bursting. The event flooded downtown Middlesboro, damaged homes, and backed up State Highway 25 East, a major thoroughfare. Mayor Nelson expressed concern about debris that might have blocked the waterway, noting some of it was large enough to require heavy equipment for removal. 

“A federal government which spends some money up front to clean drains and ditches, they wouldn’t have to pay on the back end,” Nelson said. “So an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In McRoberts, a small town in Letcher County, filmmaker and mother Willa Johnson woke up on Sunday to a flurry of text messages from concerned neighbors. Nearby, the town of Neon had found itself underwater, and people were busy running food, water, and other necessities to one another. “It’s one of the benefits of living in a small town,” she said, “is that close-knit community.”

But while neighbors may be showing up to help one another, Johnson worried about the wearying repetition of flooding, recovery, and loss again. East Kentucky communities, she said, need serious resources to contend with the financial and personal losses that they’ve faced.

There’s much made of Appalachian grit and resilience — the ability to keep going despite the odds. But Johnson said fatigue is a factor after repeated floods.  

“I don’t know how much more people can go through this,” said Johnson. “We’re not resilient. We’re tired.”

This round of floods struck Letcher, Bell, Perry, and Harlan Counties, among others. More rain is expected on Wednesday.